Marijuana Taboo in the “Drug-Free” Nation

Marijuana Taboo in the “Drug-Free” Nation

Jieun Choi
Jieun Choi

T.O.P, a member of a K-pop boy group Big Bang, has been lighting up local headlines for… well, lighting up. He is being charged by South Korean prosecutors for smoking marijuana. Many people want him punished for this “indecent” behavior — according to South Korean law, he could face up to five years in prison or pay a 50 million won (44,500 U.S. dollar) fine.

News of T.O.P.’s subsequent hospitalization after overdosing on prescription tranquilizers didn’t win him much public sympathy. While lying in a state of severe lethargy in an intensive care unit, he was dishonorably discharged from the conscript police force.

Making national headlines: news of T.O.P, whose real name is Choi Seung-hyun, smoking marijuana. 

But believe it or not, half a century ago this very act of “indecency” would have been as innocuous as smoking a cigarette in South Korea. It was Park Chung-hee, the recently ousted Park Geun-hye’s father and South Korea’s longest-reigning military dictator (1961-1979), who blazed the country’s path to demonizing marijuana.

For thousands of years, hemp plant — known locally as daema — grew on Korean soil. The crop was versatile, used to make ropes, nets and a coarse, ivory-colored fabric called sambe. Its seeds were used as a laxative in traditional medicine. This lucrative plant grew easily in the wild, and Korea’s Japanese occupiers encouraged its cultivation during the colonial period (officially 1910-1945). Whether it was smoked recreationally at that time is unclear.

The Narcotics Act was enacted in 1957 under the Rhee Syngman administration, South Korea’s first government after liberation from Japan. Marijuana (cannabis sativa L, also called “Indian marijuana”), along with poppies, opium and cocaine, was designated a forbidden narcotic — possibly due to the anti-marijuana sentiment that Harry Anslinger, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics’ first commander, encouraged from the 1930s.

But the act specifically forbid “Indian marijuana” as a narcotic. Korean-grown weed was still free. It wasn’t until the 1960s that people began to question whether the species that grew on Korean soil — cannabis sativa — also had THC, the primary psychoactive found in cannabis.

In the 1960s, smoking daemacho (marijuana) came under the spotlight with the arrival of Western hippie culture. Soldiers at U.S. military bases around South Korea were found smoking marijuana, including that of Korean produce.

Soon, smoking marijuana — or “happy smoke,” the chosen nomenclature at that time — was in vogue among young South Koreans who followed the latest trends. Popular musicians were among the first to experiment with and publicize “happy smoke.” Shin Joong-hyun, often called the godfather of South Korean rock, wrote a long, descriptive article about his “happy smoke” experience in Sunday Seoul magazine in 1973. (Two years later, he would be arrested and imprisoned for four months for smoking pot.) 

“Jandi,” written and composed by Shin Joong-hyun and sung by Park Gwang-soo. “Jandi,” or grass, is Korean slang for weed. 

Park Gwang-soo, a singer who formed a band with Shin, told daily newspaper Hankyoreh in 2005 that he used to smoke marijuana on the streets in the late 1960s.

“[Offering marijuana] was no different from saying ‘let’s grab a drink.’ There was no reason to feel guilty [for smoking marijuana],” Park said.

But military dictator Park Chung-hee, who had seized power in a 1961 coup, strove to control every corner of culture. His regime imposed curfews and regulations on hairstyles, outfits and even white rice consumption; censorship and control over various forms of entertainment were also common.

Park’s Broadcasting Ethics Commission was set up to censor popular songs perceived to be noxious to the people and the country. Ambiguous guidelines were set up to censor anything that the regime felt was subversive to its authority. From numbers that “may undermine the nation’s dignity” to those that “may sully the social climate,” nearly 800 popular songs were banned from both broadcast and live performance. The iconic protest song, “Morning Dew,” sung at last year’s candlelight demonstrations that called for the ouster of Park’s daughter, was also one of the banned numbers.

Simultaneously, the government distributed massive self-propaganda. From the early 1970s, the official song of Park Chung-hee’s most famous socioeconomic campaign, the New Village Movement, echoed through the streets day and night to inspire the people to engage in the modernization of rural villages. (Apparently, Park himself wrote the song.)

Park Chung-hee’s poetic lyrics: “Let’s help each other, gather our sweat, increase the income and make our village rich.”

Unlike these supposedly invigorating songs that served the nation’s interests, pop music seemed unhelpful, if not menacing to South Korean decency and morality. As “happy smoke” was associated with insurgent youth culture abroad (i.e. hippies and antiwar movements), Park grew wary of its potential effects at home. Nixon’s declaration of the “War on Drugs” in 1971, which some saw as a war against the anti-war sentiment among the left, may well have inspired Park to take action.

To clamp down on marijuana use, Park needed scapegoats. And pop icons were the perfect fit: Smoking weed was common among popular South Korean entertainers who performed often near U.S. military bases, a hotspot of entertainment at the time. Besides, these stars had a fervent following among the young, which meant cracking down on them would send a powerful message to the youth. 

In the winter of 1975, three years after his so-called Yushin Reforms — Park Chung-hee’s draconian consolidation of presidential power through constitutional upheavals — there was a major marijuana crackdown that involved over 50 well-known South Korean entertainers, including rockstar Shin Joong-hyun, whom the press blasted as “the daemacho ringleader.”

These celebrities suffered unlawful arrests and torture, both common practices under the dictatorship. Some, like “ringleader” Shin, were thrust into prisons and mental hospitals for months. After their release, they were banned from performing, which mattered little, as their reputation had already been tarnished by their involvement in the “decadent” activity of smoking weed, as Park framed it.

“At this grave juncture that will determine life or death in our fight against the communists, daemacho smoking by young people is ruining our country,” Park said in early 1976. He ordered that marijuana smokers be weeded out through application of the heaviest punishment available by law: the death penalty (although nobody received it). 

Less than a year after the major crackdown on the daemacho smoking celebrities, in 1976, the Cannabis Control Act came into being. It outlawed not only the smoking and possession of marijuana in general (no longer specifying just the “Indian marijuana”), but also imposing strict regulations on all aspects of the hemp industry. 

Bombarding the general public with negative publicity about daemacho during the 1975 marijuana crackdown and the passing of the cannabis law proved the perfect recipe for demonizing daemacho.

South Koreans have traditionally been wary of substance abuse in general (but definitely more liberal toward alcohol and nicotine). Narcotics were often framed by pre-Park Chung-hee government authorities as both vestiges of Japanese colonial rule and North Korean tactics to perturb the country. As long as daemacho was legally categorized as a narcotic, it was easy to convince the people how decadent and nefarious it was.

In the last four decades since the passing of the Cannabis Control Act, many celebrities and citizens have been prosecuted and publicly shamed for smoking weed, be it in and outside South Korea. Fingers are pointed, heads are shaken; fears spread that the moral fiber of the country may be dissolving. 

But it’s easy to overlook the fact that the demonization of daemacho was the brainchild of Park Chung-hee, backed by political propaganda and a media that followed suit. 

To most South Koreans, marijuana is on the same level of taboo as a hard drug like heroin or crystal meth. Not a lot of discussion takes place on what marijuana actually is; how it can be used in a variety of ways, not just to get high, and whether smoking it seriously harms the smoker’s health (compared to, for example, the copious amounts of soju that South Koreans consume every year).

The stigma surrounding marijuana creates fear — without productive discussion or accurate information — that the substance is addictive and dangerous, making smokers hallucinate and even sexually aggressive. (Which is partly why, when T.O.P made news for having smoked daemacho with a girl, many netizens speculated about a sexual liaison.)

South Koreans still shun anything that is labelled generally as a narcotic, and the taboo surrounding marijuana has been powerful enough a drug on its populace to incite unilaterally negative public sentiment and stigmatize its perpetrators. Smoking weed isn’t just a legal violation; it’s a moral violation. While K-pop superstar T.O.P seems to be the latest protagonist in South Korea’s pot scare, he will most certainly not be the last.


Editor’s Note: A previous version of the article erroneously stated that the first commander of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics was Harry Salinger. His name is Harry Anslinger.

Cover image: Smoking marijuana, or daemacho, is considered an unforgivable breach of the law in South Korea. (Source: Flickr)


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